John Fielden, the third son of Joshua Fielden, was born in Todmorden on 17th January, 1784. Joshua Fielden was the owner of a small textile business.
At the age of ten John was required to work in his family's cotton factory for ten hours a day. When he had served his apprenticeship his father made John and his four brothers, partners in Joshua Fielden & Sons. Once a week Joshua and his sons would take their cloth to Manchester, 20 miles away, and collect the bags of imported cotton. This journey became easier with the building of the Rochdale Canal in 1804.
Fielden pointed out: "In the counties of Derbyshire, Nottingham, and, more particularly, in Lancashire the newly-invented machinery was used in large factories built on the side of rivers capable of turning the water-wheel. Thousands of hands were suddenly required in these places, remote from towns. The small and nimble fingers of little children being by far the most in request."
When Joshua Fielden died in 1811, the business was still fairly small. Joshua left £200 in cash and the property and machinery was estimated to be worth £5000. Jointly run by John and his four brothers, Samuel, Joshua, James and Thomas, the business expanded rapidly over the next few years.
John married Ann Grindrod, the daughter of a Rochdale grocer in 1811. The couple had seven children: Jane (1814), Samuel (1816), Mary (1817), Ann (1819), John (1822), Joshua (1827) and Ellen (1829). John Fielden's wife died of a heart-attack in 1831 after seeing a child drown in the local canal.
Brought up as a Quaker, Fielden had been taught at an early age to be concerned about the welfare of the people the company employed. In 1816 the four brothers presented a petition to Parliament that argued for factory legislation to protect child workers. In 1822 Fielden was a founder member of the Todmorden Unitarian Society, a religious group active in the social reform movement. Two years later, Fielden funded the building of the Unitarian Chapel. Fielden also established and taught at the Unitarian School in the village.
When the wages of factory workers began to fall in the 1820s, Fielden started advocating the introduction of a minimum wage. Fielden argued that if workers were paid a decent wage, this would be good for the British economy as it was increase spending on manufactured goods. He also believed that low wages and long hours had a disastrous effect on the health of the workers. As an employer Fielden practised what he preached and paid good wages to his workers. In an attempt to improve wages Fielden gave support to John Doherty and his Grand Union of Operative Spinners. Fielden also worked with Doherty in the formation of the Society for the Protection of Children Employed in Cotton Factories.
Fielden explained in one speech: "At a meeting in Manchester a man claimed that a child in one mill walked twenty-four miles a day. I was surprised by this statement, therefore, when I went home, I went into my own factory, and with a clock beside me, I watched a child at her work, and having watched her for some time, I then calculated the distance she had to go in a day, and to my surprise, I found it to be nothing short of twenty miles."
By 1832 Fielden Brothers was one of the largest textile companies in Britain. The company owned 684 power looms and was responsible for about one per cent of the total cloth being produced in Yorkshire and Lancashire.
John Fielden believed that adult men should have the vote and was active in the Manchester Political Union. He established the Todmorden Political Union and in 1831 Fielden and William Cobbett were selected as Radical candidates for Oldham in the election that followed the passing of 1832 Reform Act. Cobbett and Fielden both won easily and became the leaders of the reform movement in the House of Commons.
After the death of William Cobbettin 1835, reformers relied heavily on John Fielden to put their case in the House of Commons. Campaigns supported by Fielden included the six demands of the Chartist movement and opposition to the 1834 Poor Law Act. Fielden also campaigned against the payment of compensation to slave owners and supported revision of the Corn Laws. Fielden was also in favour of a national system of education under public control and always voted against measures that attempted to give financial aid to church schools.
John Fielden main political activity concerned factory legislation. Although Fielden personally believed that a ten hour day was too long for children, he supported the campaign for a ten hour day as he was aware this was the only thing that Parliament would accept. It was a long hard struggle and it was not until 1847 that Parliament passed the Ten Hours Act. As Lord Ashley had been defeated in the General Election earlier that year, John Fielden had the task of taking the act through Parliament. Although Ashley had been the official leader of the factory reformers, no one had done more than Fielden to obtain this reform.
By the 1840s, John Fielden's son, Samuel Fielden, became the dominant figure in the Fielden Brothers company. In 1845 Fielden purchased a small country estate, Skeynes, near Edenbridge in Kent. John Fielden died at Skeynes on 29th May, 1849. He is buried in a simple grave at the Unitarian Chapel in Todmorden.